Analysis of dental wear and damage is becoming an increasingly important tool in unraveling the trophic ecology of a wide range of vertebrates, and when applied to fossils it can provide evidence of both diet and feeding kinematics that is independent of morphological analysis. Conodonts have the best fossil record among vertebrates and their skeletal elements are known to exhibit surface wear and damage generated in vivo as a consequence of their function as teeth. We report the results of the first systematic survey and analysis of the frequency and extent of this wear and damage in conodonts (based on P1 elements from a range of Carboniferous genera). This has revealed that wear and damage are remarkably common, present in all conodont elements sampled. Multivariate analysis reveals that patterns of wear and damage differ significantly among different conodont taxa, and exploratory ANOVA and linear discriminant analyses show that wear and damage differ according to the position of taxa in an onshore-offshore gradient, and whether they are likely to have had a benthic or pelagic mode of life. The incidence of denticle tip spalling in particular is higher in more-offshore environments and in taxa likely to have had a pelagic mode of life. Aspects of the data also reflect the occlusal kinematics of the elements, providing a means of testing hypotheses of element function. Our results have wide-ranging implications for unlocking the fossil record of conodonts, by, for example, furnishing direct evidence of the diet-mediated processes that may have driven observed patterns of evolutionary change, and reducing the confounding effects of depth segregation when using conodonts in isotope-based paleotemperature studies.

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